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How to Prepare Spiritually for Ordination Exams

Ryan M. McGraw

Taking a ministerial licensure or ordination exam must be an act of piety. Laying hold of this thought is the best means of approaching an exam without fearing the men who shall examine you. In many respects, preparing for licensure and ordination can be one of the best means to prepare for the pastorate. If we would be bondservants of Jesus Christ, then we must not seek to please men (Gal. 1:10). Being examined for the ministry is the first act among many in the ministry where a man must wrestle between speaking his conscience as it is informed by the Word of God, and seeking to tell others what he thinks they desire to hear. How you approach your exams will often indicate how you will approach your ministry. You must prayerfully seek to conduct yourself in your exam in a manner that is worthy of the office that you are seeking to enter. This means that you must be prepared to confess your faith in Christ and your desire to obey him with humility, submission, and sincerity, yet with boldness.

A ministerial examination is, above all, a test of the heart. Your examiners can discern what you present to them outwardly, but you alone can search your heart and pursue your exam as an act of worship to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. In all of your laborious preparations for the ministry, be sure to keep your heart diligently, for from it are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23). By the blessing of the triune God, the following considerations will help you to approach your examination as an act of piety.

1. Regard your examination as a public testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ and to the truths of his Word. Through it, you must confess with your mouth what you believe in your heart (Rom. 10:9). This should make your exam an act of worship. This is true whenever you speak in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you confess him before men, then he will confess you before his Father in heaven, but if you deny him before men, then he will deny you before his Father in heaven (Matt. 10:32–33). If you are confident that Christ is pleased with your answers, then the presbytery should be pleased, too.

2. Approach your exam in prayer and in faith. Philippians 4:6–7 asserts, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”[1] There have been times in my ministry where I have prayed fervently through this passage daily in order to persevere. This text provides you with the biblical means to deal with anxiety in terms of both a command and a promise. Pray through all of your preparations to ensure that your studies are driven into your heart and life by the work of the Holy Spirit, and do not neglect thanksgiving! When we give thanks to the Lord for and during the circumstances that have tempted us to be anxious, then we both place our trust in him and we confess his sovereign wisdom.

3. Consider the cause of your fears. Frequently, we must reason ourselves out of fear. Why else do we dread an examination other than the fact that we may potentially fail, together with the ensuing consequences of failure? This highlights a great danger in the ministry. Once you are ordained and the fear of passing or failing an exam is removed, the temptation to become lax in the charge that you have received from Christ becomes stronger. If you neglect your knowledge of the Word of God and cease to grow in your study of theology, then you may not “fail” an exam, but you must answer to Christ for the weak emaciated sheep who are under your care, who are unable to stand against the assaults of the evil one. Fear prior to an exam may be “natural,” but remember: “The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord shall be safe” (Prov. 29:25). “The Lord is my helper, I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Heb. 13:6; Ps. 118:6). The Lord warned Isaiah that it is audacity against God for one of his messengers to fear men: “I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you should be afraid of a man who will die, and of a son of man who will be made like grass” (Isa. 51:12).

4. Be honest and keep a clear conscience before God and men. If you do not know the answer to a question, then be honest and say so. Would you really want to stand before a congregation and say, “thus says the Lord,” when you are not sure whether he has actually said so or not? If so, then why would you desire to do so before ordained men who are examining you for the ministry? Besides this, giving an answer when you are unclear or uncertain will almost always get you into trouble—especially in an oral exam.

5. Remember that ministry is bold. Some candidates for the ministry object that they do not perform as well in oral exams as in written ones. If such is the case, then your oral exam will be even more profitable to help prepare you for the ministry. Most of a minister’s public work in the local church is verbal and not written. If you intend to speak in the name of Christ from the pulpit, then it is good for you to learn to speak without shame before a presbytery or before an examination committee. Though often intimidating, a presbytery (or comparable ordaining body) is a relatively friendly environment, whereas an unbelieving world, and at times a congregation, is not. Let us imitate the apostles by praying for boldness (Acts 4:29; Phil. 1:19–20).

6. Remember that those who will be examining you for the ministry have been given a sacred trust from the Lord. They are stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1). When they admit others into their number through the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 4:14, etc.), they must take care that they do not lay hands on anyone hastily, lest they share in the sins of those who prove to be unfit for the office (1 Tim. 5:22).[2] Be humble and be respectful of the solemn charge that has fallen upon such men and that, if the Lord wills, you shall one day share. Would you truly desire your examiners to ordain you to the ministry carelessly or mistakenly, any more than they should desire to do so?

7. Look upon a thorough ordination exam as a confirmation of your call to the ministry. Remember that the triune God uses his church to set men apart for the gospel ministry. When a man has a personal sense of call to church office, and this call is confirmed both by the election of a local congregation and by a group of previously ordained elders, then, and then only, shall that man know with confidence that the Holy Spirit has made him an overseer (Acts 20:28). Your motive for ministry must be love to the God who has first loved you in Christ (1 John 4:19). Your goal in the ministry must be to proclaim the love of the Father, as it is manifested through the grace of Jesus Christ, by means of the fellowship and comfort of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:18; 2 Cor. 13:14). However, your call to the ministry must never be a bare internal desire or a mere individual decision. We are easily self-deceived. Men may have a virtually invincible “sense of call” to the ministry in their hearts, but unless the church agrees that this is the case, both on the local level and on the presbytery level, the fact remains that such men have not actually been “called” to the ministry. The simple reason for this is that the church has not yet given him a call to labor as one of its ministers! I have known men who believe that they are called to the ministry, and yet virtually no one in the church seems to agree with them. May you never forget: “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (Prov. 28:26). Your exam is neither a formality nor is it superfluous. There is no example of an ordinary officer in the New Testament who was not elected by the people and ordained by the laying on of the hands of a presbytery. A call to the ministry is always a churchly affair. If Christ is calling you into the ministry, then your exam is part of how he is doing so.

8. Remember that your examiners are your potential future colleagues in the ministry. If they have been duly called to their office, then their desire should be for the good of the church. This includes the good of your soul. You must avoid viewing these men as “enemies,” but look upon them as fellow soldiers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of them are experienced veterans from whom you have much to learn. How often have young men scoffed at criticism that they have found later to be “words of wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:2)?

9. Regard taking an ordination exam as an excellent exercise in self-denial. Whether you pass or fail, the Lord is at work both in you and in his church through this process. Submit to his providence humbly and, if at all possible, cheerfully. A good test of whether we are denying ourselves is to consider whether we find ourselves complaining about the process. Theological students who complain over a heavy course load become candidates who complain about their exams. Candidates who complain about their exams, in turn, become ministers who complain about their churches and their presbyteries. Faithful and hard-working ministers realize quickly that the most rigorous course of seminary training cannot compare to the difficulties of the pastorate. If you find yourself developing a sinful pattern in this area, then deny yourself, pray that you might be content in whatever state you are in (Phil. 4:11), and read Numbers 11 and following regularly!

10. Preparing for your exam should provide you with a stronger foundation for biblical knowledge and personal piety. We must avoid making a sharp distinction between knowledge and piety. We must know what we practice, and we must practice what we know. The truth, as it is revealed in Scripture, is according to godliness (Tit. 1:1). Every truth of Scripture, including—among many others—the two natures of Christ, the covenant of works, the efficacy of the sacraments, the law of God, and the Trinity, has been derided as theological “hairsplitting.” Yet each of these areas has significant pastoral implications. If we do not see how true theology is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), then the fault invariably lies with us rather than with the Word of the triune God. If nothing else, all theological truth must increase our personal communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In order to pass a bar exam, a future lawyer must know the law and how to apply it. The same standards apply to medicine and to other disciplines. Should we expect less diligence and fewer rigors with respect to future ministers of the gospel? Studying for an exam frequently forces men to tie together more comprehensively what they have learned in seminary. Candidates should use this rare opportunity to pray these truths more fully into their hearts and lives. Preparing for your exam forces you to review your knowledge, yet let it serve as an occasion to wed your knowledge to your piety as well. If you pursue your examination for the ministry as an act of piety, then you shall never find the experience barren or unfruitful.

Appendix: John Erskine (1721–1803) on the Importance of Ordination Exams

In 1750, John Erskine preached a sermon entitled, “On the Qualifications Necessary for Teachers of Christianity.” Erskine was an influential Scottish minister who helped prepare Jonathan Edwards’s History of the Work of Redemption for publication. He concluded this sermon with an exhortation to presbyteries regarding their involvement in ordaining men to the gospel ministry. Erskine’s material reinforces what is written above by viewing ministerial examinations from the standpoint of the examining body. I have broken down the original large paragraphs into smaller parts for easier reading.[3]

How awful is the warning of Paul to Timothy, and in him to all concerned in ordaining others to the pastoral office! Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure. As if he had said, though you have no particular reason to suspect a candidate unfit for the ministry, be not on that account slight and superficial in trying his qualifications for it, but examine, with the utmost care and exactness, his moral character and aptness to teach; for if, through indolence and carelessness, you neglect to make those inquiries, upon which you might have discovered what was amiss; or if, through an excessive tenderness for candidates, through that fear of man which bringeth a snare, or through some other unworthy motive, you so far connive at his known vices or defects, as to grant him ordination; by this conduct, you partake with him, not only in the sins he has already committed, but also in those which he shall afterwards commit, while he either teaches or lives badly; and therefore, you must answer for all the pernicious consequences of his ordination, in ruining his own soul, and the souls of his flock. Nay, should other ministers be unwarrantably rash in this matter, and urge you to concur with them, be not moved by their entreaties or authority, to act contrary to your own judgment, lest you be condemned as accessory to their guilt.

In the verse preceding this caution, ministers are charged not to prefer one before another, and to do nothing by partiality, i.e., not to determine a cause for or against a person till we hear what can be said on both sides; not to prefer one before another, where there appears no sufficient reason for such a preference; and not to be swayed by friendship or prejudice, to be favorable to one and more severe to another, than we ought to be. And, in the end of the chapter, to encourage this diligence, the apostle informs us, that if we proceed with due deliberation we shall not lose our labour, but shall ordinarily be able to form a judgment concerning candidates. Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before them to judgment; and some men, they, viz. their sins, follow after. Likewise, also, the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they, viz. the good works, that are otherwise, cannot be hid. The meaning is some men’s sins are so heinous and notorious, that, going as it were before them to judgment, little or no trial is necessary to discover them. And the sins of others follow them to judgment; because, though less open, yet they also might, in most cases, by due inquiry, be brought to light. In like manner, the good works of some, and their fitness for ordination, are easily discerned, even before they undergo a formal trial; and those good works which are not manifest beforehand, but which, through the modesty or obscure situation of the performer, are little observed, may often, by a diligent search, be discovered.

From this remarkable passage ... Grotius observes, that we ought not only to enquire, whether a candidate for ordination is innocent of atrocious crimes, but whether he has done much good, seeing the pious actions of the eminently pious can seldom be hid. And, agreeably to this, Paul requires, not only that a bishop be blameless, but that he have a good report with them that are without, lest he fall into reproach; so that freedom from gross scandals, without certain positive evidences of a pious disposition, is no sufficient warrant for us to ordain any. It is criminal to lay hands on a candidate, if we have no positive ground to hope that he will preach usefully; and it is equally criminal to do it, if we have no positive ground to hope that he will be an example to others in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity; for the last of these is as really a part of the minister’s duty, and as really a means to be used by him for the saving of souls, as the first. The things, says Paul to Timothy, that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. We must have probable evidence of their faithfulness, as well as of their ability to teach. Even deacons are first to be proved, and then to use the office of a deacon. Sure, then, ministers, whose office is much more honourable and important, should not be allowed to exercise it, till their fitness for it is well tried... .

If any allege that there would not be found a sufficient number of ministers for all our churches, did we ordain with such caution, I answer, it is better to hazard this inconvenience, than to break an express law of Christ, which, if less strict in ordaining, we certainly do. Let us mind our duty, and leave the event to providence. Strictness in admissions may, indeed, discourage those who bid fairer for starving or poisoning, than for feeding the souls of their flocks. But to discourage such is highly commendable: and a small number of able and faithful pastors, is more to be desired that a multitude of raw, ignorant, illiterate novices, incapable either to explain or to defend the religion of Jesus; or of polite apostates from the gospel to philosophy, who think their time more usefully and agreeably spent in studying books of science than in studying their Bibles; or of mercenary hirelings, of as mean and sordid a disposition as those we read of in 1 Sam. ii. 36, who crouched to the high-priest for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread, saying, ‘Put me, I pray thee, into one of the priests’ offices, that I may eat a piece of bread.’

May God, in mercy, prevent such low and unhappy men from ever creeping into the sacred function! May a faithful, an able, and a successful ministry, ever be the blessing of our land! May the glorious Head of the Church appoint unto every dwelling-place of mount Zion, and to all her assemblies, pastors according to his own heart, to feed his people with knowledge and understanding! And may he, whose words are works, say to our church in general, and to this corner of it in particular, ‘This is my rest forever; here will I dwell; for I have desired it. I will abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her poor with bread. I will also clothe her priests with righteousness, and her saints shall shout aloud for joy. I have ordained a lamp for mine anointed. His enemies I will clothe with shame; but upon himself his crown shall flourish.’

Endnotes

[1] Scripture citations are taken from the New King James Version.

[2] See the “Appendix” below.

[3] Taken from, John Brown (of Edinburgh), ed., The Christian Pastor’s Manual: A Selection of Tracts on the Duties, Difficulties, and Encouragements of the Christian Ministry (orig. pub., Edinburgh, 1826, reprint, Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1991), 136–140. Sadly, this excellent volume is now out of print. However, it can be downloaded in full from http://www.archive.org/details/christianpastor00brow.

Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America in Conway, South Carolina. He is a graduate of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and he is a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. Ordained Servant Online, February 2012.

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